It started in October with a message painted on the Highland Avenue overpass on the Red Mountain Expressway in Birmingham. "You Are Beautiful," it said. Was it a joke? The prelude to a marriage proposal? An advertising ploy? An honest opinion?
It caused a stir in town and became fodder for stories in the Birmingham News and on the local TV networks. It captured the fancy of commentators and politicians alike who reached for profound implications and encouraged us to recognize, embrace and celebrate our beauty as a city. As we tried it on for size, somehow the appellation took on a gravitas that was both cosmic and comic.
When the painted compliment began appearing in other locations around town, columnist John Archibald suggested that the city launch a public art project to keep the message alive. "Just sanctioned signs, in sanctioned spots, by sanctioned artists. With one message: You Are Beautiful. Then Birmingham might again start to see itself in that light. It would, after all, be hard to find a city more self conscious than Birmingham," he wrote.
Then on Christmas Eve, a graffiti artist struck again, changing "Beautiful" on the Highland Avenue overpass to a word described by the Birmingham News as "a contraction for profanity." A photo of the defaced signed showed a word beginning in a bright orange F whose remaining letters had already been painted over by city workers. We all blanched and drew in a horrified breath at the F word we assumed had been painted on our beloved overpass. Suddenly, we weren't so beautiful any more. Birmingham Mayor William Bell reassured us. "Birmingham is a beautiful place with beautiful people, and it's the spirit of the message that counts."
My son, who lives in Birmingham and knows first hand what's happening in town, told me, when I asked him what he knew about the story, that the profane word painted on the overpass was Fugly. You Are Fugly. That drew guffaws. I had never heard the word before, and I understand its components, but you have to admit, it's a funny word. I have to smile every time I think of "You Are Fugly" as a perverse twist in this saga of civic identity, and I wonder why the Birmingham News deemed it unfit to print. The F word which was darkly hinted at and imagined was surely worse than the reality of fugly. At least we all could have had a good laugh.
Well, apparently all this was only the beginning.
Next, two local artists who may or may not be the original graffiti artists in this tale, were given permission by the owner of Monarch Cleaners in Homewood to paint "You Are Beautiful" on the side of his building. They got as far as "You Ar" when they were ordered to cease and desist by the City of Homewood, telling them they needed a permit to paint a sign. The artists contended that the piece was artistic expression, not a sign, and should be exempt from the permit requirement. So the Homewood City Council scheduled a hearing to determine whether the painting is signage or art. The hearing is this week, on February 15.
What do you think? I think it skirts the signage category because it doesn't say "Monarch Cleaners" or anything about dry-cleaning, but we'll see what the city of Homewood thinks. Sure, it isn't fine art, but a "You Are Beautiful" mural could serve as a visual reminder of an amusing story about our city that we could all enjoy and laugh about together. After all, a community with a sense of humor -- particularly about itself -- has a good shot at coming together, moving forward, and growing, with God's blessing.
Today's Birmingham News reports that "Beautiful" has suddenly reappeared on the Highland Avenue overpass. So, the rest of the story remains to be seen, but we're all in this together -- the good, the bad, and the fugly.